Students seek community in Passover services

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At a school like Tulane where the Jewish population makes up 27 percent of the student body, Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is a significant community event. Both The Goldie and Morris Mintz Center for Jewish Life, or Tulane Hillel, and the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at Tulane host Seder dinners for students to celebrate the holiday.

Passover is an eight-day spring festival that commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. The celebration includes a variety of unique Jewish rituals, like reading from the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus, eating bitter herbs and salt water to represent the oppression and tears of the slaves and plenty of singing.

Some students who attend Seder dinners at Hillel and Chabad will be celebrating Passover away from their families for the first time. Rabbi Leibel Lipskier said that Chabad sees its celebration as a stand-in for students’ home Passover celebrations they may be missing at school.

“Chabad actually prides itself on being more than just an organization, but we call ourselves a home away from home,” Lipskier said. “What we try to do is give the students the feeling that we’re not just providing for them a Passover at an organization at Chabad but rather [that] they’re part of our family.”

Ali Bloomston, director of Jewish life and student entrepreneurship at Hillel, agrees that Jewish-affiliated organizations near Tulane’s campus have a role in making sure students feel connected to their families even if they are celebrating away from home.

“For so many students, they have not experienced a Seder away from their families,” Bloomston said. “Being able to fill that void is really important to me.”

Lipskier said one of the best things about Seder at Chabad is its diversity. All affiliations and backgrounds are welcome to attend and participate in the dinner and service.

“… Having such a diverse crowd at our Seder is just so special, to hear everyone … you know their [stories] … you know where they come from and what Judaism means to them and what freedom [means] to them, personal freedom,” Lispkier said. “That’s the whole meaning of Passover.”

Some Tulane students have found that these organizations create a special place for them to celebrate the holiday.

Freshman Jake Schulman had a positive experience at Hillel Monday night after being concerned about missing Passover, which he says is a very special holiday for him and his family.

“… I was pleasantly surprised by my experience at Hillel,” Schulman said. “The staff at Hillel did a phenomenal job of facilitating an inclusive, participatory Seder that helped make the experience more natural.”

Freshman Anna Gimilaro thought that her experience at Chabad during Passover allowed her to reconnect with the Jewish community.

“Chabad was overflowing with students who were excited to belt the words to classic Hebrew songs we had grown up with,” Gimilaro said. “Experiencing a strong sense of community and Jewish pride, last night’s Seder reminded me of my personal connection to Judaism, something I have certainly lost over the years, especially since coming to college.”

Aside from providing a comfortable environment for students to celebrate Passover, Hillel and Chabad strive to emphasize the importance of Passover both within and beyond the Jewish religion and culture.

“It’s important to remember the oppression of the past and celebrate how far the Jewish people have come,” Bloomston said. “It’s also important to recognize there are still oppressed and suffering people in this world.”

Hillel and Chabad staff use the Seder celebrations to help students feel connected to the stories of Passover in today’s world. 

“The story isn’t necessarily easy to relate to,” Bloomston said. “It involves an exodus from slavery, plagues, parting the Red Sea … but we try and tie in moments for connection …”